Arts

Making Writing Fun

RAWK empowers kids to read and write what they want
RAWK co-founder Emily Kastner with participants Jamara Harper, far left, and Jamari Harper.

Writing is an endeavor many students find daunting, anxiety-ridden, frustrating and boring. But Read and Write Kalamazoo co-founders Anne Hensley and Emily Kastner don’t want it to be that way — in fact, they believe that in the right environment, kids can find reading and writing to be empowering, enriching and, yes, fun.

Read and Write Kalamazoo, or RAWK, started in 2012 to provide a kids-only creative space for reading and writing. The mission of the nonprofit — located in the Reality Factory, at 213 Frank St., in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood — is to support development in these learning areas, which RAWK does by hosting workshops for students from preschool through high school to perform, collaborate and study different forms of writing and reading they may not be exposed to in school.

RAWK is modeled in part on 826, a national network of writing and tutoring centers, the first of which was started in 2002 by author Dave Eggers and incorporated a pirate supply store as a “front” for the writers’ space, making the workshop area special and specific to the kids who came.

“We feel very strongly about how empowering it is to give students the tools they need to say what they want to say and then let them say it in a caring and supportive environment with people who will validate their work,” Hensley says. Writing is only one part of RAWK workshops; the organization also has public readings and performances so the workshop participants have the opportunity to share their work. “They’re emboldened by the opportunity,” she says.

RAWK workshops span from day- or week-long events to workshopping series and include in-school programming, partnership programming with Communities in Schools, and performances and readings at public locations such as the bookstore Bookbug. Workshop themes and topics differ for every event. In March, participants made their own journals and learned about the art of journals and journaling. Another March event featured RAWK flash poets reading food-themed poetry at the annual meeting of the People’s Co-op. Preschool students participated in a “Build & Write” workshop in April, in which they used craft materials to help tell their own stories, which were written down and narrated by adult partners.

“Preschoolers don’t have any problem at all thinking up stories,” Hensley says. “It’s innate.”

This summer RAWK is hosting three week-long writing workshops that will focus on voice, narrative and storytelling. The workshops feature guest volunteers from the community, such as young adult literature author Stephanie Stamm (featured in Encore’s May issue), who was RAWK’s first volunteer for this type of workshop. The workshops result in a published anthology of work by the students that can be bought at Bookbug. The publication itself is an important validation of the students’ hard work, the co-founders say.

“I remember seeing my work published for the first time as a student,” Kastner says. “I was like, ‘I made it!’”

Hensley and Kastner volunteer their time to RAWK and put together the workshops and programming in their “off-hours.” The duo relies on volunteers from the Kalamazoo area (20 to 30 volunteers donated their time and expertise to RAWK in 2014 alone) to help create and run the workshops.

“We put in enough hours to be a full-time job,” Kastner says. “I don’t know if we knew exactly what we were getting into. It was kind of just, ‘Hey, let’s all write!’”

“Yeah, let’s all write grants for days and days and days,” Hensley interjects with a laugh. Then she adds, “It’s all about balance right now, though. We could have workshops every weekend. There’s that much demand. We’ve had such good reception and support.”

Part of that support is financial — RAWK receives donations from community members and grants from local foundations, including grants from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation. The money helps to provide scholarships, materials and opportunities to participate for students who cannot afford the fees for workshops and classes. Community members also support RAWK by applying their skills to help the nonprofit in different capacities such as providing tutoring, event planning and the design and photography that keeps the online presence of RAWK strong and growing, the co-founders say.

“Our volunteer base is an integral part of what we do,” Hensley says, and meaningful relationships with non-relative adults in the community are important to supporting children through school and into college. Being able to see the different applications of skills in the workforce via meeting a variety of professionals during RAWK workshops can also inspire kids to dream of career ideas and options, she says.

Kastner and Hensley both say they are eager to keep developing a kids-only safe creative space, one that students look forward to visiting. “Every workshop we get super-excited about what the students are going to come up with, and then we get super-excited when they share their work,” Kastner says.

“There’s crying — a lot of crying,” Hensley adds.

“Yeah, but we try hard not to,” Kastner responds.

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More Information on RAWK

For more information or to volunteer or donate to RAWK, visit

readandwritekzoo.org.